A-Gnostic, A-Theist, A-WOL, A-Moral, A-Pathetic: A reconsideration of terms.
How destitute is a heart that misses nothing. (Ýmir, Einar Benediktsson)
Seldom will the delta be like the dreams of the source. (SigurÓur Nordal)
As a kid I learned that an agnostic did not know if there was a God. An atheist did not believe in God. Neither term was very positive or honourable in my part of the world. A theist did believe in God, presumably, but it was not a term we used. I'd like to think about the A-Words again.
In the time of the early church gnosis was the special knowledge of the divine that would allow you to escape from the ordinary, if not the evil and deceptiveness, of earthly life and return to the divine from which you had come. The church was hostile to the Gnostics. You did not require some special knowledge. Faith in Christ was the saving essence.
But anyone who has been a church member should be well aware of the gnostic attitudes of many modern Christians. Knowing Jesus becomes the important thing, as opposed to following Jesus' way. And knowing Jesus in the right way e.g. via believing in the Bible in the right way is just as important. As Ken Chant once said, "In some churches you have to sing in tongues in the right minor key, or it's not genuine."
Agnosticism was seen in my youth as a bad place to be. We looked down on Prime Minister Hawke who had left the faith of his clergy father, and his own early life, to become agnostic. Yet agnosticism as Huxley originally coined it has a certain humility about life which I reckon contrasts well with the arrogant gnosis of much popular Christianity.
When I reached intellectual maturity, and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; a Christian or a freethinker, I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until at last I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure that they had attained a certain "gnosis" -- had more or less successfully solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble. And, with Hume and Kant on my side, I could not think myself presumptuous in holding fast by that opinion. ...
So I took thought, and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of "agnostic". It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the "gnostic" of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant; and I took the earliest opportunity of parading it at our Society, to show that I, too, had a tail, like the other foxes. "Agnosticism", 1889 Quoted in "Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics", 1908, edited by James Hastings MA DD
That it is wrong for a man to say he is certain of the objective truth of a proposition unless he can provide evidence which logically justifies that certainty. This is what agnosticism asserts and in my opinion, is all that is essential to agnosticism. "Agnosticism and Christianity", 1889
I have to say that agnosticism seems to me to have an honesty that much popular Christianity does not have. It is not afraid to say "I do not know." It is not afraid to say "I am not sure I can ever know." Perhaps a true Christian is in some senses always an agnostic. "I put my faith in a life lived like Christ's. But I have no proof, and sometimes little conviction, but as life must go on, this is the way I will go."
ATHEISTS are people who do not believe in God. So it was said in my youth. George H.W. Bush, as Presidential Nominee for the Republican party is reported to have said: "No, I don't know that Atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered as patriots. This is one nation under God."
This hostility to Atheists is not quite what I grew up with, we Australians were not so enthused with our religion as our American cousins are. But it is the attitude of many in the church... Atheists are foolish, bad, barely to be tolerated, or even down-right evil.
Yet is "God" or the Divine, to be equated with Theism. If theism is a belief in the God of popular Christianity then I must be an atheist. Special creation in six days... intervention into worldly affairs on behalf of those who pray... In the Conversations with a Convert sections of this website, Greg says
"God loves us all and will provide for us all." Well, what about the Christians currently being slaughtered in Ambon by the Muslim Jihad. God's not providing much for them... the Muslims must just be shouting to God a whole lot louder these days! Or things like "God sent his Son to die for me." That's crap. What sort of Father does that-- don't tell me that atonement theory has got beyond that-- it's what we sing and say and pray every Sunday. When it comes down to what we do and say we haven't got far past Abraham and Isaac 3000 years ago when Abraham's going to burn the boy-- you still hear us make excuses for him.
And David said
It is true when someone said: If God is good, then God is not God. And if God is God, then God is not good.
Clearly if God is good, then God isn't God. God is not up to the job. God is simply not powerful enough to do the job of being God. If God is really omniscient and all powerful God is not Good. Because if God was good, he would not let the world exist ins such an evil shambles and perpetuate it with such an evil act as murder in the name of Salvation. The simple fact is that God allows unspeakable evil to continue.
Now I know all the arguments you can have about this. All the stuff about human will, and God having to work through history, and the reward of heaven that makes it all worthwhile in the end. But I'm sick of all the ducking and weaving. The sheer fact is that our old traditional images of God do not work. None of the arguments of theodicy excuse God. Nothing justifies the behaviour of God in bringing people into the pain filled existence they know. If there were some kind of cosmic RSPCA God would be in the dock and found guilty. God has not prevented what any good God could, would and should.
The Christian story as we have heard it simply does not work anymore. It is ridiculous as it tries to hold in tension a Loving God who is a monster and deserves no worship at all. As we said in the other conversation, "The powerful and undoubtedly salvation-channelling theologies of previous generations no longer interpret the God experience. In our age they hide God, make God irrelevant, and trivialise our human suffering. They make the Divine appear evil."
Now if not to believe in this sort of God is Atheism... well, I'm one too. This God is arbitrary and not worth belief. How can you worship an idea that just does not work anymore.
When it comes to A-Words... God is AWOL... absent without leave. God did not ask us. God just went. There is no God of popular Christianity left to believe in. We have been left to get on as best we can, and most congregations, deeply afraid that God may leave them too, will give you little friendship as you try and understand the gap.
In my youth this attitude left us AMORAL. There was no basis for morality if you were agnostic or atheist. It is still an attitude which abounds, even though most Australians are practical atheists. (I believe in God, but God has no relevance to everyday life) My son, a passionate atheist, and passionately concerned for justice came home from school deeply insulted by the inference of the chaplains homily that atheists had no basis for moral action.
This is simply crap. Why is Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and Let justice flow down like waters the province of theists alone? Is not the claim of amorality simply a low class method of apologetic... too low class to be called apologetic... a low class way of trying to argue for the goodness of "christianity" by discrediting and slandering the opposition?
A common Australian response to much of this subject is APATHY. Apathy means "without feeling"... no pathos. I think, however, that the subject is full of pathos, if you will excuse the pun. It is of the greatest sadness that God is AWOL and that the meaning of life is so far removed from us. For some it will be that life just goes on, party party and there is not much of a problem. A different personality type is bound to be distressed at some level by the AWOL of God and meaning that constitutes much of modern life.
Epicuras is remember as the one who said "Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die." If we Australians think of him at all it is as an excuse to booze up and eat up. But his understanding of life was far more subtle and is greatly misrepresented by this attitude. Seek wisdom, might be a better motto for his understanding. As Aussie blokes we could do far worse.
Let no one be slow to seek wisdom when he is young nor weary in the search of it when he has grown old. For no age is too early or too late for the health of the soul. And to say that the season for studying philosophy has not yet come, or that it is past and gone, is like saying that the season for happiness is not yet or that it is now no more. Therefore, both old and young alike ought to seek wisdom, the former in order that, as age comes over him, he may be young in good things because of the grace of what has been, and the latter in order that, while he is young, he may at the same time be old, because he has no fear of the things which are to come. So we must exercise ourselves in the things which bring happiness, since, if that be present, we have everything, and, if that be absent, all our actions are directed towards attaining it." -- Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus
There is wisdom also in the epicurean philosopher Horace:
Ask not - we cannot know - what end the gods have set for you, for me; nor attempt the Babylonian reckonings Leuconoë. How much better to endure whatever comes, whether Jupiter grants us additional winters or whether this is our last, which now wears out the Tuscan Sea upon the barrier of the cliffs! Be wise, strain the wine; and since life is brief, prune back far-reaching hopes! Even while we speak, envious time has passed: pluck the day, putting as little trust as possible in tomorrow! Horace
In all our busyness, a-pathy is often the shield behind which we shelter. Just as the popular Christian may hide behind the myth of a daddy God who will make everything alright. I guess I'd rather be an a-pathetic Australian man than a pathetic Australian kidding myself with stories of daddy god. But I would far rather again be a Pathetic Australian man... full of pathos, that is. Full of passion. Feeling, seeking, wanting, enjoying, being outraged, weeping, and hoping. it is in the feeling that there is life. It is in the feeling that the Divine may perhaps be found.
One more A word is AMEN... indeed!
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